Christianity, Habit Formation, Paradigm Shift, personhood, Philosophy, Practical Application, Teacher Training
Comments 9

The Incarnation and Education by Jennifer C. Spencer

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I am very thankful to belong to such a wonderful Charlotte Mason book study group in Boiling Springs, NC.  We began our group a little over a year ago with volume six, A Philosophy of Education, and then worked through volume one, Home Education.  We chose to begin with volume six because that was the last book Mason wrote, and so her ideas were more refined.  It is also a good overview of what is dealt with in more depth in the other volumes.  Right now we are about halfway through volume two, Parents and Children.

This is my first time reading the volumes in this way—slowly, chapter by chapter, making connections, seeing the context, and taking time to discuss and digest the ideas without giving much thought to the mechanics of implementation.  Those of you who have participated in such a group know the value.  I am beginning to think that it is in this way in which the Holy Spirit is allowed to pass understanding.  As I reread Parents and Children, I see places I highlighted before.  But since I am not desperately searching for hints on “how to ‘do’ Mason”, it is like reading it for the first time.

At our last meeting, the group was discussing chapters 12 & 13, which begin with a long passage in French and go from there into a discussion of Hobbes and Locke and Platonic Dualism (read it here:  We laughed together at the difficulty of this section of the book and admitted our temptation to just skim it and move on.  But by the end of our meeting, we had decided that these were some of Mason’s most important ideas and were worth another reading before going any further.  With the help of a translation provided by Ambleside Online (, a philosophy book left over from a class I took years ago, and our resident philosopher, Carroll Smith, we were able to build some background knowledge that gave us something upon which to hang these ideas.

If I may be allowed to narrate, the “two philosophies which have divided mankind since men began to think about their thoughts and ways” (Mason, Parents and Children, p. 125) can be traced back to ancient Greece.  Plato was the first, so far as I know, to suggest a division between spiritual ideas and physical matter.  His assertion was that ideas are the only true reality.  Ideas are important, matter is not.  Spiritual is important, physical is not.  Theoretical is important, practical is not.  Aristotle also suggested a split (or dualism), but he took the opposite stance—the important thing is the matter, the physical, the practical.  The debate has been going on ever since.

Chapter 12 starts with Madame de Stael’s critique of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704).  Hobbes was a contemporary of (and personally acquainted with) Descartes, Galileo, and Kepler.  He argued that all ideas are the result of sensory impressions and nothing more; the mind is simply matter and chemicals, and it runs in a mechanistic way and not by the will of the thinker.  In other words, he was a materialist (Ozman & Craver, Philosophical Foundations of Education, 2003).  This idea led directly to the study of behaviorism by people like Pavlov, which, of course, is still prevalent in our culture.  Madame de Stael states that Hobbes did not have much of a following in his native England because his ideas were too radical for the time.

Locke, on the other hand, was not quite so bold as Hobbes, preferring to take a more agnostic view, although the two ideas ultimately lead to the same logical conclusion.  He acknowledged the split between things spiritual and things material, but he argued that we can only know what we can observe with our senses.  This was the beginning of empiricism, which acknowledges only objective data—things that can be tested, observed, and measured.  Since Locke was both religious and moral, his ideas were widely accepted in England and throughout the western world.  Ultimately, it resulted in America’s founding fathers creating our system of government.  It is also at the root of our society’s current fetish with standardized testing in education.

At the beginning of this piece, I admitted that when I first began reading Mason’s work it was to find information on practical application.  And I know from my own classroom experience, as well as from my effort to train teachers, that we are all looking for something we can use on Monday morning when the kids come in.  But Mason chastises us in this thinking:


“Probably the chief source of weakness in our attempt to formulate a science of education is that we do not perceive that education is the outcome of philosophy.  We deal with the issue and ignore the source.  Hence our efforts lack continuity and definite aim.  We are content to pick up a suggestion here, a practical hint there, without even troubling ourselves to consider what is that scheme of life of which such hints and suggestions are the output.” (Mason, 1925, p. 118)


We hear people say all the time that a Mason education is not a book list, a curriculum, or a checklist of techniques.  But it is so easy to forget that when the rubber hits the pavement.  I don’t know about you, but I felt that during last year’s ChildLight USA conference this truth finally began to sink into the minds of many participants.  Instead of hearing conversations about how to do nature study or dictation, I heard over and over again about the paradigm shift that was taking place.  There was a reverent quiet as attendees recognized a truth they could not yet fully understand or explain.  The Holy Spirit was at work.

So what is so special about Mason’s philosophy?  What is the paradigm shift?  Maybe, at the risk of oversimplification, it could be summed up in a word: Unity.  Mason completely rejects the idea of dualism.  We humans tend to try to break down and compartmentalize ideas that are big for us.  We like for things to be “either/or”, but Mason refuses to conform to our boxes.  She is unapologetically “both/and”.  But it goes beyond even that.  To say “both/and” implies that there is a separation of things that we can bring together through effort.  But there is no separation between matter and spirit; we are both fully physical and fully spiritual all the time.  Some factions argue that education should be literary, while others argue that it should be hands-on. But we need education by books and education by things to meet the needs of a being that is both fully physical and fully spiritual.  We ask, should knowledge be theoretical or practical?  Both.  There should be no separation between the theoretical and the practical.  Theory without practice can quickly deteriorate into useless pontification, but practice without theory becomes, in the words of Dr. Smith, “random activity”, which is equally useless.  Should we focus on ideas or facts?  Both.  Without ideas to hang on, facts have no context in our minds and are discarded.  Should we be about developing habits or fortifying the will through ideas and choice?  Both.  An emphasis on habits divorced from their informing ideas spirals into legalism and behaviorism.  Mason advocated habit training, but true change in habit originates with an idea that takes root in the mind and is worked out in one’s own will.  Any attempt we make to change another person from the outside—whether it is a big person or a small person—results in either temporary, surface compliance or rebellion.  Should education be religious or secular?  There is no separation between religious and secular.  Consider this quote about what happens when we try to separate the sacred from the secular:


“We lose through this misconception of our relations with God the sense of unity in our lives.  We become aware of an altogether unnatural and irreligious classification into things sacred and things secular.  We are not in all things at one with God.  There are beautiful lives in which there is no trace of this separation, whose aims are confined to the things we call sacred.  But many thoughtful, earnest persons feel sorely the need of a conception of the divine relation which shall embrace the whole of human life, which shall make art, science, politics, all those cares and thoughts of men which are not rebellious, sacred also, as being all engaged in the great evolution, the evolution of the Kingdom of God.” (Mason, Parents and Children, pp. 127-128)


To confine worship to Sunday, to morning devotion time, or to the school’s chapel day implies an acceptance of dualism, as we take the classical humanist model of the ancient Greeks and then “add” some Bible study and a blessing before lunch.  To feel compelled to “sprinkle a little Jesus” on every lesson in order to make it Christian likewise implies an acceptance of dualism.  It is like saying we need to sprinkle Italian seasoning onto Spaghetti Bolognaise in order to make it Italian.  This dish is Italian by its nature; to sprinkle too heavily risks the flavor becoming too strong and, therefore, unpalatable.  Mason’s Great Recognition is that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it; all knowledge comes from God, and the Holy Spirit cooperates with us in education when invited to.  Therefore, any activity—from reading a history book to cleaning a table to painting a flower—if not done in a spirit of rebellion, becomes an act of worship as the child’s spirit communes with the Holy Spirit.

This is radical.  Despite any surface similarities, it cannot be compared to any other model of education.  As Dr. Smith put it, Mason’s model does not look to Plato or Aristotle for its foundation, but to the Trinity.  The Advent season is the perfect time to contemplate this truth.  We have our model in the Incarnation of Christ, who was both fully human and fully Divine—fully God and fully man—fully spiritual and fully physical, just like us, the Image-bearers.


If you have not yet begun to read Mason’s volumes for yourself, please let me encourage you to start now.  You simply cannot get from any secondary source, including this one, the same level of understanding that you can get from her original series.  Even better, start your own study group so that you can help one another over hurdles like chapter 12 in Parents and Children.


© Jennifer Spencer 2011


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. Sandy Rusby Bell says


    May I join your study group? This is a deep, rich post which indeed speaks of some of Mason’s most important ideas. Thank you. Time for me to read Volume Two again.

  2. Tammy Glaser says

    I am with you, Jennifer, on this new journey. Some friends and I started reading Home Education together this year and we plan to start Philosophy of Education. Although nearly everyone is new to Mason, the grand conversations we are having sharpen my understanding.

    This quote is eerily like some of what B. F. Skinner, pioneer of behaviorism as an educational technology, wrote: “Hobbes was a contemporary of (and personally acquainted with) Descartes, Galileo, and Kepler. He argued that all ideas are the result of sensory impressions and nothing more; the mind is simply matter and chemicals, and it runs in a mechanistic way and not by the will of the thinker.”

    Skinner: “‘I am willing to concede that I have committed a kind of intellectual suicide in writing this autobiography…. By tracing what I have done to my environmental history rather than assigning it to a mysterious creative process, I have relinquished all chance of being called a Great Thinker.”

    “If I am right about human behaviour, I have written the autobiography of a nonperson.”

    I love what you wrote about unity. Right now, I am spending Thanksgiving with my family in Missouri. We spent Black Friday at an art museum and studied pictures by the artists we know well (Monet and Millet). I took the opportunity to introduce van Gogh (our artist for the next time) to Pamela. When I posted pictures on Facebook, a friend who knows nothing about Mason wrote, “Love how u incorporated a learning field trip in ur trip so cool can’t wait for the girls to get a little older I love stuff like that.”

    Unity is such a rare thing in our dissected, compartmentalized world that unity stands out as completely other.

  3. Rebekah says

    Jennifer, I am reminded and challenged, inspired by your gentle summons to continue to revisit the volumes. Thank you for your articulate unraveling of some of the “source”.

    (And with one foot firmly planted in the material world, may I say, that is the cutest new haircut ever!)

  4. Bonnie Buckingham says

    Well said Jennifer. Great study group with you and Carroll in it.
    Take a look at Eric Metaxas ” Socrates in the City” ( author of the new book on Bonhoeffer and Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce) online. He has speakers come into NYC to talk on the big questions: Os Guinness, N.T. Wright, Peter Kreft, Alistair McGrath, Michael Ward ( Planet Narnia) . Francis Collins, and others.

  5. Jeannette says

    So glad that you all found my husband’s translation from the French helpful. I still remember when he did many years ago for AO.

    What a thoughtful piece! I agree with you that at the last conference, those big ideas were stirring. Let’s continue the conversation.

  6. Glory Paulson says

    Thank you for this thought-provoking piece.

    I have noticed just recently, in trying to get grounded and back in abundant-living mode, that reading Charlotte’s writings is helping me have greater vision for what I’m doing at home with my small children each day. It proves true: The philosophy/informing ideas are more powerful and important than the activities — in EVERY way for me. The philosophy provides the reason, the vision … and the patience.

    Bless you and thank you!

  7. I was raised by my father to consider all my work/life worship to God, so dualism has had less effect on me than it might have had I a differnt father to guide me. Because my father had planted this idea in my head my artistic endeavors at univerity allowed me great freedom to fully live out my life with Him in my university classes. To know that when I create I am most myself and it also brought glory to Him for me to be fully what He had created, revolutionized my university studies. Reading this in CM’s writings was one of the ideas in her method which drew me in. If I could give this gift of freedom and fullfillment my Father gave me to my own children I would forever be smilling.

  8. Kathy Wickward says

    Thank you for this post. I have struggled with wrapping my mind around Mason’s overarching ideas, trying to elaborate on what “children are born persons” could mean and to give meaning to the method.

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